D yanked the reigns more harshly than he had intended, and the DL-4 leapt to change its direction. Sparks flew as its hooves skittered across the cobbled square, and D was momentarily distracted as he worked to keep his balance. When he looked again to his quarry, she was gone, vanished like a mirage at his approach. The hunter cast his gaze about, but there was no sign of the White Lady anywhere.
With the queen's disappearance, a stillness settled over the town. The scattered conflagrations and the cries of the wounded made silence impossible, but slowly, a certain calm crept over everything, until the only motion was the lazy flight of cinders drifting skyward.
"Vampire Hunter D," a resonant voice crooned. Though deep in pitch, the words carried a silky, feminine quality so complete that it caused a stirring in the dhampir's belly with its very sound. "This is an unexpected surprise. Clearly, Tamarande has failed to do his job."
"Why have you come to this town?" D asked the darkness. "What is it you seek?"
The vampiress' hearty laughter filled the night like the toll of church bells. The sound was as haughty and self-important as any of her courtly brethren. "I seek only to claim the birthright which was denied me," she chuckled, "To join the courts of the nobility, as is my due."
With these words, the weight in the air lifted, and as it did, the undead began to move once more. As one, they turned their shambling gait in the direction of the square, where D was positioned. The townsfolk stood for a moment, unsure of how to deal with suddenly being ignored. When they finally did decide, most opted for flight, and D did not blame them one bit. Logically, if the undead were focused on D, the people could spend their energy battling fires. Then again, the hunter doubted that the townsfolk were feeling logical. They had seen too much already, and it was the dhampir's fault that their town was under attack.
There was no more time to think about it. The vampires were upon him. They came in waves, packed solid against each other, precluding any chance of escape. The hunter's blade moved on instinct, mounting a defence of flurried slashes to keep his attackers at bay. Wherever it flew, it parted transient flesh, and the nightwalkers fell like rotting dominoes before his onslaught. No matter how swiftly D manoeuvred, however, the shadows found an opening to exploit. Hands grabbed the hunter's legs and dragged him from his horse. Feral claws tore at his back, peeling away his cape and armour in ragged strips and before long, he felt the first true pain as they sank into his pale flesh.
"Well, D," the symbiont called above the din of battle, "It's been nice knowing you."
"It's not over yet!" D snarled and, laying the sword across his palm, he thrust forward with all his strength. The blade worked like a silver plough, driving the undead before it and sending them staggering back several paces. The brief respite gave D time to look around and seek out some sort of advantage in the melee. A broken-down woodshed was the only cover, but it was better than nothing, and D pressed himself against the building's charred little wall. This way, at least, he had one side covered.
The pause was brief, and the pack was regrouping, moving in unison like piranha. Perhaps the White Lady was not a Nosferatu, but neither were these normal vampires. They flung themselves at him in bestial rage, heedless of the cold, enchanted steel that tore at their compatriots. The way they looked and moved, even the festering way they died was wrong. To all appearance, they seemed like the plague-bearing Nos, but their mistress and her new childe were clearly of the aristocracy. Something didn't add up.
These vampires did not fall back, or even pause to plan strategy. They only swarmed. The hunter chopped them down as they came, but where one fell, two would take its place, and D wondered gravely just how long they would keep coming.
"D! Get down!" The voice was unexpected, but too insistent to question, and D hit the dirt. A half-second later, a roaring bolt of flame passed above his head, its sound quickly drowned out by the vampires' screams. They broke and scattered, hair and clothing ablaze, revealing the form of Blagden, the mutant from the saloon. He held the nozzle of a portable gasoline tank, the source of the blaze, in one of his meaty fists, and was strafing the flaming stream back and forth over the horde. Confronted by such a weapon, the transients wasted no time in falling back, and were gone before D had a chance to regain his feet.
The mutant cut the flow and the jet of flame dwindled to nothing. The mutant bounded between the still-burning pools on the earth and came to rest beside the hunter, nimble despite his size.
"You okay?" he asked, his voice no longer bleary with drink.
The hunter did not answer. His armour was shredded and his body was still wet with the blood his healing body had been unable to reclaim. He was healing, though, and he inclined his head toward the mutant. "Thank you."
"It's the least I can do," Blagden returned, "The people are blaming you for this attack, and they mean to run you out of town," he paused, "But I don't. Them diamonds are in a hollow tree just west of the town gates. You've done your job, and that's all we could ask."
"I understand," D nodded. He gave the miner a final, grateful glance and he was moving once more. In a leap, the dhampir was on the DL-4's back and headed up the hill. He was no longer wanted in town, but he was still being paid, and he still had a job to do. If his guess was right, the White Lady would return to the mine to punish her subordinates, and D had to get there first, before she had a chance to move on. Everything depended on getting there ahead of the vampiress, and he leaned in tight against his plunging steed to gather as much speed as possible.
Still, he was not fast enough.
As D reached the face of the cliff-side, he felt his hopes vanish. The mine shaft stood open, and debris lay everywhere, forced outward by the vampires' collective might. Dismounting, D moved toward the entrance. Though he didn't hope to find much of use, it was always worth a look. Here and there, blood splattered the rocks, where one of the transients had been crushed by the earth-moving strength of its brood-mates. They had all risen again, though, and there was no way of telling which way they had gone on the rocky cliff.
"Tamarande tells me you pulled a dirty trick on him."
The hunter whirled toward the source of the words. They were more natural in tone this time, but there was no mistaking the soft, resonant lilt of the White Lady. She was hidden somewhere below, in the scrubby tangle of vegetation that clung to the hill.
"He tells me you spoke of decorum and then left without saying goodbye as well. Is it true, D?"
The words were calm and light as spring breeze, at least for the moment. The dhampir relaxed, his body taking a more casual stance. "Show yourself."
There was a crackling, like dry bark tossed into a fire, and a nearby pine began to shed its needles. More than that, the whole tree began to turn brown, and the little spines drifted to earth in a great, fluttering cloud. Denuded of its foliage, the tree could no longer conceal the form of the White Lady among its limbs. She lounged across the branches like a leopard, one palm caressing the rough trunk. Her face was the same mask of contentment as before, and she drank the life force of the tree through her palm, just as another vampire would drink blood. The first pieces of bark began to split and fall away, and the vampiress met D's gaze.
The dhampir said nothing, preferring to listen for signs of other vampires, rather than to his own voice.
The vampiress pouted. "Really, D, you could at least answer me. We're so alike, after all."
This one was clever, D surmised, but by no means was she a visionary. This was the cliché "we're not so different, you and I," that had played out between adversaries for as long as mankind had been telling tales. Then again, perhaps she was simply making small talk. The dhampir decided to play along, for a time.
"I fail to see the resemblance."
The vampiress gave a laugh that managed to be at the same time throaty and musical. "Do you?" she asked curiously, "There is so much we have in common! We're both bastards, you see; misbegotten spawn forced to live in the shadows of the world, and never allowed to take part in it."
"You are no dhampir," D noted.
"Alas," the White Lady agreed, "And more is the pity."
"You have more originality than I gave you credit for," D noted, "This is the first time I've ever heard a vampire wish that she were a half-breed."
The vampiress stroked the trunk of the tree as if it were a cherished pet, and D noted that the wave of entropy was now moving on to encompass the ferns and belladonna around the pine's base. "It would make things easier," she sighed, "To have a reason for my exile."
"You're a pariah then," the hunter observed, "What crime could you have committed, that the aristocracy would cast you out?"
"I told you!" the vampiress spat, her voice suddenly growing venomous, "I'm a bastard. I was created and cast aside without ever knowing my sire. That is the only crime I've committed, and all the impetus they need. Mine is a cruel fate that I never chose."
"So you vent your rage on innocent miners," D returned caustically, "You'll forgive me if I don't weep for your situation."
"They're only cattle," the vampiress noted, "Crops to be harvested, and then left fallow, to spring anew for the future. They grow back, hunter, and with lives such as theirs, death is really just a release."
D regarded the White Lady silently, trying to determine if she was as callous as she seemed, or merely trying to test him. The vampiress stared languidly back, as unreadable as a coded text.
"Why don't you join me?" she asked suddenly. The way she spoke, she may have just as easily been suggesting he join her for dinner. "I could use someone of your skill."
The dhampir didn't smile; the offer was just too preposterous, but for a moment, the light caught his eye, making his face a little less stern. "What's in it for me?" he asked, speaking just as casually as the White Lady.
"Companionship," the vampiress answered simply, "I know how cold and lonely the endless nights become. Wouldn't you like someone with whom to pass the time?"
D felt the fingers of his left hand twitch. This time, the hints of a smile did poke at the corners of the hunter's mouth. "I have all the companionship I need."
"Such a pity," the White Lady breathed, "We'd have made a good team, you and I. I wish you had answered differently. Tamarande?"
Rock shifted above the ruined mouth of the mine, and D looked up to see the vampiric mercenary, crouching amid a half-dozen of his scabrous brethren. A saw-toothed smile split the transient's face, letting his wicked fangs glint in the moonlight. Gracefully, Tamarande leapt from his perch, flipping twice in the air before landing perfectly a few pace away from the hunter.
"Oh, D," Tamarande smiled, "I wasn't sure we would get this chance again. That was a nasty thing you did, using that flashlight on my brothers and sisters. We would never have been so dishonourable to you."
D held his tongue, noting as always that it was the very weak and the very strong who liked to hear their own tirades. D knew that Tamarande was still newly unborn, but he wondered where the dead hunter rated himself in regards to power.
"Her Ladyship really took a chunk out of me for letting you get away," the vampire bantered on, and turned his left side for D to view. Quite literally, the vampiress had taken a strip out of Tamarande's hide, and likely a rib or two as well, as the flesh had not yet completely healed. Judging by the grin on his face, the fallen hunter had meant it to be shocking, but D simply logged it away as an opening in his opponent's armour.
"That's another thing I liked about you, D," the White Lady spoke up, "You could speak volumes with your silence." She sat up and regarded her minion sternly. "Honestly, Tamarande, stop running your mutated gob and attack, or I'll take out your other lung as well."
The vampire's swaggering grin went lax, then quickly reassembled itself in a mask of rage at the dhampir who seemed to be winning his mistress' approval.
"By your command," he barked, and the battle commenced. Tamarande's style was straightforward, but complex, making masterful use of his short swords. After a few feints, he was moving in, and the dhampir found himself quickly on the defensive once more. D was fast, but the night's activities were weighing on him, and Tamarande's butterfly blades were as nimble as the vampire who wielded them. Quickly, the advantage of the no-dachi's reach was whittled away, as Tamarande jostled closer with each strike.
D leapt back from the battle, touching down just long enough to rush ahead once more in a jouster's charge. Tamarande deflected the blow and whirled, jamming his left-hand blade deep into D's ribs. With a grunt, the hunter swung back, his pommel driving hard into the vampire's cheek. Both men parted ways, panting heavily. D noted with some satisfaction that several of Tamarande's serrated teeth were now missing from the upper jaw, but it was a fleeting joy. The pain in his side was far too insistent.
Tamarande coiled himself and sprang, a whirling dervish of pale flesh and metal. D's heavy sword was hard pressed to keep pace with the furious cyclone attack. Again, the short, thick blades found their mark, and again, D's flesh offered just enough resistance to allow for a counter-strike. As the steel bit into the dhampir's unarmoured back, he swung low, and Tamarande leapt to avoid the attack.
The vampire was almost successful, but not quite. The ultra-sharp no-dachi whistled quietly as it slid through the meat of Tamarande's foot, just below the ankle, and the vampire came down in a screaming, boneless heap. He curled up instantly and clawed at his leg like a wild animal, bellowing curses and obscenities. Stepping forward, D raised his blade for the final, emancipating strike.
"Wait!" the vampire cried suddenly, "I give up!" He continued to hold his gushing leg, but less urgently, as if it was only the memory of pain that gripped him. "I'm helpless," Tamarande cried meekly, "Please... mercy..."
"Mercy?" D asked, incredulous, "You've crossed the line, Tamarande. By ancient law, your life is forfeit."
"What law?" Tamarande pleaded, "I don't know of any-" the vampire's words were choked off and a spray of blood erupted from his chest. The vampire went rigid, as though struck by lightning, and D noted a broken wooden shaft protruding from the vampire's breast. With a final scream, Tamarande went limp, and the gout of blood trickled off to nothing.
"Such a pity," the White Lady mourned. Her finger trailed across the broken tree-limb at her side. "He had such promise, too. My children never turn out the way I wish."
D eyed the vampiress, as he held his own wounds closed. "Perhaps you should stop having them."
Moonlight flashed in the White Lady's eyes, but her snarl mellowed to another pout before it had the chance to properly form. "I'm not too concerned," she shrugged, and slipped down from the branch,. As she strode through the undergrowth, plants withered and died at her feet. "You see, if I can't have quality, I can at least go for quantity." She raised a finger toward the mine, where the handful of undead had been joined by a score of others. "I'm sure none of them are a match for you, at least not individually, but there are ever so many, and you look so very, very tired."
D straightened in the face of the White Lady's mock-concern, but her words were true. He was exhausted. Under normal circumstances, the knife wounds Tamarande dealt would have begun healing the instant the blade was removed. Now, they were just starting to close. In truth, he was nearly spent.
"Adieu," The White Lady lilted, "I don't believe we'll be seeing one another again." With a flourish, she was gone, vanished from sight like a spirit.
From their rocky perch, the minions regarded D like vultures. They looked at one another silently, as if discussing on some base level whether they should attack as one or draw things out for the sake of sadistic enjoyment. In the stinking, gas-filled air, D felt his head swim. It was not the stench, but the fatigue within him. Desperately, he ground his teeth, and noted with concern that his fangs were beginning to extend. He looked to the ancient blade, given to him by Doris and Dan. The tip did not waver; he was not that far gone, but it did seem heavier. It wanted to rest.
The first vampires sprang. They swooped from the cliff, their forms becoming grim silhouettes in the setting moonlight. The hunter slashed and one of them fell in half. Another followed, and their blood mingled with that of Tamarande. Those still on the cliff-side leapt to the hunt and surrounded him. They pounced from all sides, one after another, a storm of claws and teeth. D focused on their red, glowing eyes, and used them as a mark of where to split.
The moonlight shadows deepened, and D felt his left arm go numb. He looked down and saw his fist, no longer his own, plunge into the chest of the nearest nightwalker.
"If you won't use sense," the symbiont gurgled from inside the transient's body cavity, "I'll do it for you." There was a lurching sensation, and D felt himself touch the void. It was a dark, cold, unclean feeling, like leprosy to his living soul. For an eternal heartbeat, D ignored the battle and bent all of his effort toward regaining control of his nature, and of the hand that had set it free.
With a crunch, the vampire on D's fist imploded, and the hunter felt its ribs pass through his wrist, sucked into the symbiont's supernatural gullet. The rest followed, limbs splitting like over-cooked sausages as they compressed and were pulled inside. The dhampir, who had killed more men and beasts than he could remember, squirmed. If there was any comfort in the sensation, it was that the other vampires seemed to be equally horrified, and that was small comfort indeed.
As the last bits of carrion disappeared into his palm, D felt the wave of otherworldly heat that always followed the symbiont's feasts. It spread up his arm and through his form, racing along his spine like hot metal and settling into him, bringing hideous strength and power.
"You're welcome," the symbiont laughed, "Now let's do some damage."
Grudgingly, D seized the energy that pumped furiously in his veins. Tightening his grip on his sword, the dhampir sprang at his attackers. Where Tamarande's blades had flown like the wind, D's motions were positively cyclonic, and tore through the putrescent mob with the cataclysmic force of a hurricane.
The transients fell back, agog at the hunter's sudden recovery. With a half dozen gone, and more following, they took to their heels. D chased them down and freed them, sending their souls on to the next world. The night blurred as he let his reflexes take over. None could hide from his blue foxfire gaze. When the sun came up, the vampires were still fleeing, and the last of them faced the blaze of dawn, rather than slow to meet the avenger at their backs. Their flaming bodies thickened the already noxious air of the valley, and the hunter finally reined himself in. D jogged to a halt in the creeping rays of morning, drenched in pink, bloody sweat.
This had been a defeat. There was no reason to think otherwise. As he surveyed the ruins of Bistritz, still smouldering in the valley, and the broken face of the mine, he took stock of himself as well. Townsfolk had died, their livelihood thrown into disarray; all had come to ruin.
Of course, that was only half of it.
D had lost another battle as well; the one he waged with himself. He had touched the darkness, no matter how briefly, and his sinister companion had exploited it to the fullest. Inside, he felt used and unclean, and probably would for a long time.
"Admit it, D," the symbiont grinned, "You liked it."
And the truth of it was, part of him did.
The DL-4 approached. Long years had taught it that dawn signalled the end of crisis. The dhampir mounted up and moved on. He left the bounty where it had been hidden and struck out once more. Somewhere, an aristocrat in rags was hidden, and if he was quick, perhaps he could hunt her out.
Well, that's it. Thanks for reading. I admit, it didn't wrap up as well as I'd have liked, but who knows? Maybe it will spawn a sequel.
If you're some kind of weirdo, who just can't wait to read more of my stuff, check out "Vampyre Hunter D" in the erotic fics section. I promise it isn't too awful, even if it is smut. Otherwise, the next one should be soon to follow, barring computer crashes and real-life crises.
One other thing: I want feedback! I'm an antisocial hermit, so this stuff doesn't get read much in real life. Thus, I'm grateful when people I've never met send me critiques of the stuff I've let other strangers post on their pages (Arigato, Cathy!). If you want to applaud me, give me suggestions, or beg me never to write another lousy fan-fic, I can be reached at email@example.com; just no flame-mail